Embracing openness

Times Staff Writer

Scholars of the future puzzling out the differences between New York and Los Angeles will have, among other evidence, the cities’ dueling Prada stores. Two and a half years after the opening of Prada SoHo, the first of several “epicenter stores,” the Italian fashion house is about to open a serene, mint green and dark wood 24,000-square-foot boutique Friday on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

The stores are both based on and defined against each other.

“What interested us most was to have a degree of continuity and a degree of difference,” says Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the 2000 Pritzker Prize winner whose Office for Metropolitan Architecture, based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, designed the shops. “What I think is so beautiful about L.A. is the lack of visible pressure. We tried to be a little more quiet or subtle than in New York.”

Architect Ole Scheeren, a lanky and effusive young OMA partner, was in charge of the project, and OMA’s Eric Chang, who also worked on Prada SoHo, was the project architect. Scheeren says the Beverly Hills store is about juxtaposing the pristine and the mundane. “It’s a search for a more informal environment for shopping,” he says, “so the customers can really interact with the merchandise.”


Both stores use glass that appears to mist up at the touch of a button to become opaque. Valuable in a dressing room -- allowing shoppers to disrobe, dress and model their selections without leaving it -- the trick glass also changes the apparent size of rooms, creating vastness or intimacy as walls form or melt away.

And both stores are somewhere between boutique and conceptual art piece: Like much of what comes from Koolhaas, they were heavily thought out.

Unlike the L.A. store, which was begun from scratch, the New York Prada was built into the former Guggenheim SoHo. To reflect the history of the building, and of its neighborhood, the space was designed “to perform a kind of double act,” as Scheeren puts it: It’s a store with a cultural space that has played host to dance performances, lectures and the TriBeCa Film Festival.

The themes of the Rodeo Drive store, the young Dutchman says, are more about California’s openness, its horizontal culture, its embrace of technology.

So the third, top floor is mostly open, to allow in as much natural light as possible, along with views of the sky.

The second floor is lined with a sponge-like material, to give a futuristic California feel.


And the first floor offers a contradiction that’s as Southern Californian as a gated community: By day, the store is entirely open to the street -- there’s no travertine arch or polished bronze doorway. “You’re building in L.A., which is probably the best climate in the world to think about the relationship between inside and outside,” Scheeren says. “Wouldn’t it be exciting to leave it open altogether?”

Koolhaas, for his part, learned about the virtues of the local climate while designing the Universal Studios headquarters and says he was playing with the idea of public and private space.

But the utopian openness ends when the store closes: At night a moving wall of aluminum slams into place, creating a shop that’s both visually impenetrable and, in Scheeren’s words, “hermetically sealed.”

According to the architects, Prada approached OMA with themes and concepts instead of ironclad ideas. The company was conscious of its transformation: It began as a small family business in 1913 Milan and started booming internationally only over the last decade or so.

“They said, ‘We have grown so rapidly, we know we can’t keep doing things the way we have,’ ” Scheeren says. “This new scale requires a whole new approach.” Hence the epicenters.

And OMA began to look at shopping as a concept. Scheeren, one of the firm’s four partners, says fashion and contemporary culture have “a mirroring effect” on each other. The display screens around the store -- with messages vaguely based on newspaper headlines -- reflect, he says, the theme of “looking at yourself, looking at the world.”


Prada is hardly the only current project for OMA, which has started to build in earnest over the last few years. The company has projects all over Asia and Europe, the largest being Beijing’s CCTV, or Central China Television, which will involve sets, studios, broadcasting facilities, offices and an adjoining hotel, for a total of 5 million square feet.

In May, Seattle’s $165-million Central Library opened -- the firm’s first large public building in the U.S. and a pleasant change of Stateside fortunes for Koolhaas, who saw his plans for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art canceled over the last two years. “Something happened after Sept. 11. As far as I know, it happened to most people,” he says of the busted plans. “But we’re in very vigorous shape, both intellectually and professionally.”

Alongside museums and media headquarters, a boutique might seem trivial. Koolhaas doesn’t think so. Shopping, the architect has written for years, is one of the defining activities of contemporary life. “It’s incredibly important,” he says. “But it rarely enters architecture, either in discourse or execution.”

He considers unabashedly consumer spaces intellectual challenges. “There are always potential other dimensions,” he says. “It’s never simply a store.”


Rem Koolhaas will sign his new book, “Content,” 4 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Taschen, 354 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills.